Film Review: Searching for Sugar Man

Malik Bendjelloul’s documentary Searching for Sugar Man is fantastic. It is easy to see why it has made the Oscar shortlist for Best Documentary.

Two South African music fans wonder what happened to Rodriguez, an American musician who became immensely popular in South Africa in the 1970s and 1980s. Despite his popularity there, Rodriguez’s albums were commercially unsuccessful in America and he was rumoured to have committed a grisly on-stage suicide. The two fans attempt to find out about elusive character behind the music…

The reason that Searching for Sugar Man works so well is twofold. Firstly, the story itself is a most fascinating tale. Secondly, the storytelling is superb. The viewer’s attention is captured succinctly by the opening gambit. The introduction sets up the rest of the documentary by telling viewers how popular Rodriguez was in South Africa, and the mystery surrounding the man himself and his death. Even though Rodriguez was largely unheard of outside of South Africa, this mystery is instantly tantalising.

There is a real sense of mystery that engulfs the first half of the documentary. Given that Rodriguez’s South African fans began to look into him in the 1990s, it is unsurprising that they face a number of obstacles. With the prevalence of the internet, it is easy to forget how much more difficult it was to find out about things (especially a continent away) prior to this. Nonetheless, their perseverance is testament to the impact of Rodriquez’s music.

The film features the songs of Rodriquez throughout. For those unfamiliar with the songs, this makes it clear why his music was so popular in South Africa. It also illustrates why the producers who worked with him and high expectations for the records. One of the surprising aspects of the tale is the question of why Rodriguez’s music was not a commercial success in his homeland.

Searching for Sugar Man is a compelling and uplifting documentary that is highly recommended.

Searching for Sugar Man is out DVD and Blu-Ray from 27th December 2012.

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